David Starkey gets it right.

In December 2019, a day or two before the 12 December UK General Election, New Culture Forum held its 2019 Smith Lecture, in London. The Speaker was Dr David Starkey.

As a general rule I seldom devote more than a token hat-tip to a speaker’s introduction, but I have a little more than that to say about this contribution from Peter Whittle.

When I began teaching public speaking – shortly after the Napoleonic Wars – there remained in the medium a strong favouring (which I disliked) for formal oratory. Since then that fashion has receded almost to extinction in favour of what I call Conversational Speaking, and the trend was driven by The Market. Audiences want not to be spoken at, but spoken to, or with. Best speaking practice today is characterised by a more chummy demeanour and, ideally, no script or even notes. Speaking without notes (I call it “shooting from the hip”) transmits a range of desirable signals like spontaneity, command of the subject, sincerity, and so on, and (keep my secret!) is astonishingly easy to do.

Whittle’s introduction is shot entirely from the hip. It has stumbles, but if anything they enhance the result because it sounds – and is – spontaneous. He conveys the feeling that he has things that he sincerely wants to tell us, and we therefore want to hear them. Among other things he tells us about “So what you’re saying is…”, a series of interviews that he conducts with interesting people. They are very good: I commend them.

David Starkey begins at 6:00.

He speaks from notes. He nevertheless contrives to convey the chumminess, sincerity and much of the spontaneity of noteless speaking. We shouldn’t be surprised: he’s been doing it a long time. He’s even older than I, though not by much. Rather than develop the skill of dispensing entirely with paper, which till a couple of decades ago was regarded as a bit of a mountebank’s trick, he has learnt to refer very sparingly to his paper and not to allow it to impede his excellent relationship with his audience.

I found this talk highly enjoyable. It is humorous, bulging with relevant information concerning nineteenth century politics, and scattered with some wonderfully quotable lines.

It is also prescient. Though he starts with all manner of caveats concerning the uncertainty still prevailing before the election, and he declares himself determined not to prophesy the result, he nevertheless hints obliquely, late in the talk, how he expects it will pan out. He gets it right, in satisfactory detail.